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Thread February 27, 2016 editorial: comments

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1 February 27, 2016 editorial: comments

Putting Your Reputation on the Line

In the interview we published this week with Joe West, a super-successful producer/engineer/songwriter, he talks about how in his early career he would take jobs that were offered him — even when he didn’t have the right experience — and just “figure out” how to do them. That’s how he ended up doing mastering, multichannel movie mixes and so forth.

You’ve got to be pretty confident in your talent, though, to take that kind of risk. If you accept something and you can’t deliver, you could damage your reputation and lose the chance for future work from that source. Then, on the other hand, as the old cliché goes, “nothing ventured nothing gained.” Sometimes you have to take risks to get ahead.

But it doesn’t always end well. Early in my music career, thanks to a referral from a studio owner that I knew, I had the opportunity to do a session on guitar for a TV commercial. I was totally confident in my playing ability, but my sight-reading chops were practically non-existent at that time, and I knew there was a chance there’d be more than just a chord chart on this session.

I took the job, anyway, figuring I could do what I’d done in the past, and use my ear to “fake” my way through it. But this time, the guitar chart featured single-note lines and notated chord voicings, and my ear wasn’t enough. After some embarrassing takes where I came in at the wrong time or played the wrong notes, I was preemptively dismissed from the session. Not only was it humiliating, but the studio owner who recommended me got an earful from his friend, and that was the last time he ever suggested my name for a session.

So, the point I’m trying to make is, if you get offered something that you’re not qualified for, or at least that you don’t have the experience for, you have to weigh what the ramifications of failing would be versus the value to your career (and the money you’d make) if you succeed.

Sometimes it makes more sense to say “no.” When I was doing a lot of composing music for commercials, I had a couple of occasions where I was asked to write something in a style that I was completely unfamiliar with, and while it was tempting to think I could listen to some reference material to learn what that style required, I decided the risks were too great. I’d spent a lot of time and energy making the contacts that I had, and I didn’t want to take a chance on alienating any of them. Of course, sometimes if you turn down an offer, you don’t get another opportunity, so it’s never an easy decision.

Have you run into situations like that, where you were offered something that you weren’t confident you could handle? What did you do?

2
I recently was asked to compose an unusual piece for a foreign animation company that I have done work for in the past, however, the contact person was new to me and they had been told that I was "the guy" and could handle almost any request based on my history with them. Well, this was turned out to be a real stretch. They wanted an a cappella version of a sound-alike theme from Game of Thrones, but not close enough that they would get sued. They would provide the lyrics and wanted to use their voiceover artists as the singers (this would be set to animation)and all these people lived in different cities.

Knowing that this could possibly become the theme for a successful series, I tried my best to follow through by explaining the complexities of obtaining a good a cappella performance and how difficult it would be to complete it using remote singers. As a detailed discourse continued over several days, things became even more challenging and I finally told them this was not going to work well as planned and it may be better to find someone locally that could put together a choral group and do it live.

After that discussion I thought they would move on and that would be it. I was feeling exasperated and had to ask myself "was I just being difficult?" I thought about it for a couple days and then called them back with a plan to do a rough track in my studio with my wife and myself doing all the voices, and providing guide tracks to the voiceover artists to record their replacement versions. They were open to the plan so I continued to get more specifics on what they wanted. From this point it only got more abstract and when they finally gave me the lyrics it was an absolute "you've got to be kidding me" moment. This did not make any sense to me but I told myself "I just needed to be flexible and go with the flow".

Anyway, I proceeded with the impossible and they signed off on the rough mix. Then about half way through remote recording of the voiceover talent, when I was just starting to believe this might actually turn out good, they told me to stop everything. They had decided to go another direction. Fortunately, they were cordial about the situation and admitted they probably should have listened to my advise early on and told me to send a bill for my time. It didn't damage our relationship and I did more work for them afterward.

The moral of the story is that this can be a really crazy business and it's not always easy to tell a good decision from a bad one, but it's always a learning experience when you try something new.
3
What a story Mike. I think we have all done that at least once. But like you said, nothing ventured, nothing gained. I was asked to play with a jazz band as a guitarist one time. I cannot play jazz!! Rock and Folk! Heavy Metal!! Why would I take the job? Ordered too. In military band. I tried to explain to the commander I didn't know any jazz (I was just a sub guitar guy filling in). He said, "Oh you can do it." Finally some guy from the audience rescued me, took the guitar, and whipped out some of them Bbsus7EbHarmonic9th chords and everything was good with the world. I hid in shame, exited from the building slowly, and hoped no one would whack me with a tomato.
4
Quote:
Fortunately, they were cordial about the situation and admitted they probably should have listened to my advise early on and told me to send a bill for my time. It didn't damage our relationship and I did more work for them afterward.

It's amazing in these situations how fickle clients can be about artistic direction. The composer is the one who usually suffers for it. I'm glad you got paid and didn't burn any bridges.
5
Quote:
" Finally some guy from the audience rescued me, took the guitar, and whipped out some of them Bbsus7EbHarmonic9th chords and everything was good with the world. I hid in shame, exited from the building slowly, and hoped no one would whack me with a tomato.

Wow, that must have been awful to experience. Your commander sounds like he was absolutely clueless about music. To think someone can "fake" playing jazz. Yikes.
6
Quote from Richard:
I recently was asked to compose an unusual piece for a foreign animation company that I have done work for in the past, however, the contact person was new to me and they had been told that I was "the guy" and could handle almost any request based on my history with them. Well, this was turned out to be a real stretch. They wanted an a cappella version of a sound-alike theme from Game of Thrones, but not close enough that they would get sued. They would provide the lyrics and wanted to use their voiceover artists as the singers (this would be set to animation)and all these people lived in different cities.

Knowing that this could possibly become the theme for a successful series, I tried my best to follow through by explaining the complexities of obtaining a good a cappella performance and how difficult it would be to complete it using remote singers. As a detailed discourse continued over several days, things became even more challenging and I finally told them this was not going to work well as planned and it may be better to find someone locally that could put together a choral group and do it live.

After that discussion I thought they would move on and that would be it. I was feeling exasperated and had to ask myself "was I just being difficult?" I thought about it for a couple days and then called them back with a plan to do a rough track in my studio with my wife and myself doing all the voices, and providing guide tracks to the voiceover artists to record their replacement versions. They were open to the plan so I continued to get more specifics on what they wanted. From this point it only got more abstract and when they finally gave me the lyrics it was an absolute "you've got to be kidding me" moment. This did not make any sense to me but I told myself "I just needed to be flexible and go with the flow".

Anyway, I proceeded with the impossible and they signed off on the rough mix. Then about half way through remote recording of the voiceover talent, when I was just starting to believe this might actually turn out good, they told me to stop everything. They had decided to go another direction. Fortunately, they were cordial about the situation and admitted they probably should have listened to my advise early on and told me to send a bill for my time. It didn't damage our relationship and I did more work for them afterward.

The moral of the story is that this can be a really crazy business and it's not always easy to tell a good decision from a bad one, but it's always a learning experience when you try something new.


I think that's the best way to handle it, especially when you've already built contacts/a network/a reputation, is to try and be open to every offer, but cautious. I.e. let the client know that there may be difficulties or drawbacks, so that they'll be fully aware moving forward.